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Giorgio Bellavitis (1926-2009), son of town-planning, master of restoration

Getting to know Venice in person - following the teacher of one of the most ‘basic’ subjects studied during the first year of Venetian faculty of Architecture (Elements of architecture and relief of monuments) – walking along the calli and inside the houses, has been a fundamental experience in my life: one could really identify the urban design of the city by exploring the fabric of the buildings. The same could probably be stated by those that had the chance to meet Giorgio Bellavitis, working as an assistant of Egle Trincanato, the tenured professor, in the sixties. Only nowadays, reconstructing Bellavitis’ecletic biography, I could see that, back then, he was walking through an initiation path leading to the following phase of his life: a “fight in the field” to save Venice which had made him return to his hometown after the political, professional experiences and the studies carried out abroad.

Back then, in the assays, in the surveys and in most publications, Venice was mentioned as “the problem of Venice” and this obscure use of language seemed to imply that no adequate solution could possibly be found by the technicians and by the administrators. Bellavitis had a pragmatic approach, he wouldn’t keep the students confined inside the Tolentini building, he would take them outside, walking hand in hand with the “design” and the “relief”. Following an urban approach, he would help us to recognize the present traces of Venetian evolution through centuries, identifying the connection between expert skills and centuries-old traditions. One could notice the sustainable intervention techniques – slight or more drastic – applied in the reconstruction of deteriorated monumental complexes or houses which structure had been modified in order to host – often large- families impoverished by war. The conflict had forced several Venetians to cohabit in conditions that had completely disrupted the originary structure of both prestigious and minor buildings. In that same period, Bellavitis had been fighting to safeguard the city of Venice with the Venetian section of Italia Nostra: he mounted a first exhibition at Palazzo Ducale called “Italia Nostra difende Venezia” (1959) and a series of shows - with photographic panels and structural-functional analysis of the lagoon city - that would then also be transferred abroad (Strasbourg 1962, London 1962-63). The title of London exhibition “Venice for Modern Man. Ten centuries of History confront Modern Town Planning” was emblematic of Bellavitis’ urban approach in dealing with the transformation process required to turn Venice into a livable city for the “modern” man. He continued his work over the sixties: in 1968 he was appointed ‘person in charge’ of the survey involving Venetian buildings, he carried out “a study including 392 detections and structural analysis indicating the reconstruction costs’” to demonstrate the viability of his approach and to draw international attention to a city that couldn’t find the resources to get over the decay caused by the flood of 1966.

The message that Bellavitis was trying to convey was, in a nutshell, a very simple rule: if a restoration procedure is to be carried out on a “monument” that is not well-accomplished and no rigorous criteria of philological restoration can be applied, the process has to take into account the history of the city in terms of structural basic elements that, though often complex, can be clearly recognized by means of a solid interdisciplinary grounding (ranging from the historical analysis to the elaboration of a restoration project).

Bellavitis’ historical-planning maturation began with his youth experiences in the field of comic book drawing (while he was a pupil of Cavanis, he worked for the satirical weekly newspaper Sior Tonin Buonagrazia) and then continued, during the period of the partisan struggle, with the collaboration with the newspaper “Vento di Montagna”, distributed by the Osoppo Brigade that he joined in 1943. These initial experiences led to a series of professional cooperations with several publishing houses, an activity that finally turned into his actual profession during the period he spent in London working as artistic director of Cosmopolitan and Uragano Comics Inc, a company that was a real legend in the field of comic book drawing and that launched Hugo Pratt, Dino Battaglia, Alberto Ongaro and others. In my opinion, the turning point in his carrier of successful drawer was his translation of the book “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”, written by Ebenezer Howard (Italian translation: L’idea della Città Giardino, published by Calderini, Bologna 1962). The return to town-planning marked the end of his brilliant career as a comic book drawer (after that, he only occasionally would draw illustrations for schoolbooks and encyclopedias) and led Bellavitis back to Venetian urban issues. Inspired by the words of Sansovino, he chose to settle in Venice, a city “connected to a time that’s yet to come”, because “ nowhere else in the universe, man could find his rightful place”.

Since 1969, he started working mainly as an historian-architect, focusing on the restoration of buildings and monumental complexes (in association with his wife, Nani Valle, assistant of Ignazio Gardella at IUAV University). The list of assignments for the restoration and renovation of palaces near the Canal Grande starts with the work commissioned by Corner-Spinelli in 1966 and continues with Barbarigo della Terrazza (1969), Giustinian-Pesaro (1971), Balbi, Angaran and Pedenin (1973), Mocenigo Gambara (1991), Corner della Regina (1998), Rezzonico (2000), Foscari (2005). The list includes the restoration of the Church of S. Nicolò dei Mendicoli, the Loggetta del Sansovino and the convent of San Salvador; Bellavitis also designed the structure of the garden of Palace Venier dei Leoni (a museum of the Guggenheim Foundation), and finally carried out his last restoration work at Palazzo Giustinian, seat of the Biennale (2005).

The recent publication of a special edition of the bulletin of Venetian Civic Museums (titled “Architect Giorgio Bellavitis. Studies, discoveries, community considerations”, published by Skira-Marsilio, 2011) gives a significant contribution to the available information about this important figure through a new presentation of his least famous writings on the evolution of Venetian urban structure over centuries, particularly in the period between the 12th and the 15th century.

Restoration works are always developed according to the spatial context of their locations and of the city. The stones of Zorzi Palace, found at the beginning of the works, were a clear example of the decay of the monumental building constructed by Mauro Codussi in S. Severo. Ma Bellavitis, thank to his skills and experience (and respecting the original structure indicated in the Carta di Venezia – Map of Venice of 1964), through a three-year project, could “unveil the historic value of the monument, commenting on the witticism of the buyer-patron (Mario Zorzi) and on the “knowing irony” that existed between Zorzi and Codussi and their project to transform the original structure of a factory into a modern and majestic palace without having to rebuild it completely, thanks to a “scansion of combined, different units that Condussi will extensively use in subsequent buildings such as Corner Spinelli and Loredan Vendramin palace” (p.92).

The historical versatility and curiousity emerged from the studies on architect Codussi and painter Giorgione, define the roles they played in the transformation of Venetian figurative culture between the 15th and the 16th century. Their contributions to Longhena of Ca’ Bon Rezzonico (the palace hosting the museum of Venetian art of eighteenth century, p.101) and to the architectural restoration of San Salvador (a convent system to be restored after the invasive works carried out in 1926) have helped the creation of modern buildings, often oriented towards future innovative functions, like the Telecom Future Centre designed for S.Salvador (p.110-125).

The picture outlined through the writings of Giorgio Bellavitis - published in the bulletin of Civic Museums - shows the figure of a Venetian returned to his hometown after several varied experiences in order to contribute, just like a surgeon, by restoration and renovation projects, to the regeneration of the urban fabric through the use of architecture. As Bellavitis stated “Just like Wright, that on the basis of organic architecture, creates buildings in harmony with nature, in renovation projects, I outline inner functional spaces of Venetian palaces in harmony with their perimetrical structure”. In 2009, when Bellavitis died, the mayor Massimo Cacciari declared: «His connection with Venice has always been characterized by an International approach, by cultural and intellectual openness, competence and professionalism” but he forgot to mention his fight for Venice, carried out facing even the most thankless or mortifying tasks as well as criticisms or bitter controversy, as the one that was triggered by the design and construction of the wooden bridge in Ca’ Rezzonico. Moreover, he was assigned prestigious awards like the Torta Prize for restoration (1981), the Bannister Fletcher Prize (1982), the Elena Bassi Prize (2000) and accepted them with a timid smile.

After all, his job as an architect allowed him to draw for most of the time, with the same irony that characterized comic book drawing during the first years of his youth. Maybe, the real personality of Bellavitis can be found in the pseudonym he had chosen for himself when he was only 17 years old, during the involvement in the partisan struggle: Walt Disney (a nickname that was then turned into ‘Valdisna’ by the commander of the Osoppo Brigade). Indeed, he has always proved to be frank, prudent, ironical and positive, just like Mickey Mouse, in his commitment to identify the best solution for the restoration of Venetian buildings.

Bellavitis was a learned, discreet and ironical man that maybe Venetians have never fully known and recognized and that hopefully will now be explored and enhanced through new related publications: just like this article that has been edited by MUVE thanks to the perseverance of Camillo Tonini.

Galleria fotografica
[ Publication date: 2 September 2011 ]

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